Does Apple build in obsolescence?

Apple's new laptop can't be repaired by users. But does anyone care?

Apple's new MacBook Pro has been criticised by the do-it-yourself repair company iFixit for being the least repairable laptop in the company's history. They gave it a 1/10 for repairability, highlighting the fact that the RAM is soldered into the motherboard, the battery is glued to the frame, and the screen is bonded to the glass, so that the entire upper lid needs to be replaced if it gets scratched.

Felix Salmon declared that this was part of Apple's "strategy of built-in obsolescence", writing:

Apple’s post-purchase revenue from every one of these new laptops that it sells will be significantly higher than what it’s seeing right now on the MacBook Pro line. . .

Apple Computer became Apple Inc back in 2007, and the overwhelming majority of its half-trillion-dollar market cap has absolutely nothing to do with revenues from selling laptops or desktops. The real money, it turns out, is in flows rather than stocks: the income stream from selling songs and apps, or from a cellphone contract, is much more valuable than a one-off computer purchase.

And it seems to me that with this latest model, Apple is trying to turn its computers into a flow product, too. It’s a beautiful shiny object — but it has much more built-in obsolescence than anything the Pro line has ever had in the past. And the more frequently Apple can persuade its customers to upgrade or replace their computers, the more its Mac operation will be worth. You might adore that Retina display now. But I suspect you’ll be replacing it sooner than you might think.

Some of what Salmon writes is just wrong. The "real money" for Apple has never been in selling songs and apps. The app store paid out $700m to developers in the fourth quarter of 2011, which, with the company's 70:30 split, means they grossed just $300m in that quarter. The company's overall revenue for that quarter was $28.3bn, and it's profit was $6.62bn; well over 20 times what it grossed from the app store. And that $300m doesn't take into account the cost of running the damn thing. Add it all together, and the situation is unlikely to have changed from February 2011, when Apple's then-CFO Peter Oppenheimer confirmed that "we run the App Store just a little over breakeven".

The fact is that Apple sells apps, and music, movies, TV shows and magazine subscriptions, in order to sell hardware. According to Horace Deidu, they make the vast majority of their income and profits from the iPhone, but the Mac and iPad divisions also both comfortably beat software and music sales. Apple has always made its money from selling big-ticket items at a healthy margin every other year or so. The real change for the company hasn't been that it's gone from hardware to software, but from computers to mp3 players and then smartphones.

With that in mind, it is of course still the case – and always has been – that Apple is interested in selling you computers more frequently. That's why they work so hard to cultivate a "gotta have it" air around all their new releases, and why they work hard at customer retention, to ensure that buying a new one is an experience you look back on fondly. But to make the leap from that to "Apple designs its computers to be un-upgradeable so that you buy new ones" misunderstands the company's aims and strengths.

A similar objection to the one Salmon is voicing now was made when the first iPhone came out, in 2007, with a battery sealed in the phone. And the response now is the same as it was then: how could they make what they made without those tradeoffs?

A sealed battery was the price for making a phone which competitors believed was literally impossible, and a bonded screen is the price for shipping a laptop with a resolution of 2880x1800 in a body smaller and lighter than the one which was being replaced.

The real question to be asked of Apple isn't whether they are going from a nice company which sells you infinitely upgradeable computers to a nasty one which deliberately kills yours after two years so you have to buy a new one. The question is whether Apple still views the sort of people who upgrade their computers as a viable market at all.

Salmon cites TUAW's Richard Gaywood, who wrote:

My last MacBook Pro saw a little over 2.5 years as my primary computer, and I would expect no less of any computer I was paying in excess of $2200/£1800 for. In that time, I upgraded the memory once, the hard drive three times, and replaced the battery once. None of these options would be available to me with a new MBPwRD.

Undoubtedly, Gaywood will find the switch in focus from repairability to thinness and lightness painful. But he is simply not the sort of customer Apple can afford to care about. I am hardly a technophobe, but my current MacBook pro has spent the last four and a half years as my primary computer, and in that time I have replaced the battery twice (once under warranty, and once not). That's it.

The cost to Apple of making its laptops black boxes is that the vanishingly small proportion of its customers who are "power users" get annoyed, and maybe some even switch to bulkier, more user-serviceable Windows or Linux machines; the advantage is that it can continue to justifiably claim to make the best computers in the business.

The inside of a MacBook Pro with retina display. Complicated. Photograph: iFixit.com

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.